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Explainer: D6 & D10 — elections and the future

Monday, January 12, 2015 by Michael Kanin

Each week, the Explainer offers Monitor readers a closer look at stories we have been following.

New City Council Members Sheri Gallo (District 10) and Don Zimmerman (District 6) represent two-thirds of what is perhaps the most interesting twist in the new 10-1 district system: a chance for Republican voters in the western part of the City of Austin to elect representatives who might closer align with their view of the U.S. political world. (Though City of Austin Council elections are nominally nonpartisan, one could argue that in this past election, nominal was the operative word.)

Gallo beat Mandy Dealey, a veteran of what was perceived as the established Austin political system in what turned out to be a rush to discard everything associated with the city’s pre-10-1 status quo. That, no doubt, played some role in Gallo’s victory. Still, Gallo, who in 2002 ran as a Republican for the Travis County Pct. 2 Commissioner’s seat and who has described herself as a fiscal conservative — yet, according to the Statesman‘s Lily Rockwell, “bristles at being labeled a Republican” — cast a profile that was more likely to entice GOP voters, especially those looking for more general change.

Zimmerman beat former Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce head Jimmy Flannigan. Though his history as something of a radical candidate had many pundits wondering about his viability, Zimmerman may well have capitalized on the same general anti-status quo, first-chance-for-Representation angle that helped Gallo.

Indeed, a comparison of the numbers from the 2014 general and runoff elections and the 2012 presidential vote appears to validate those notions, and paints two very different pictures of how things might go in two years when Gallo and Zimmerman (both unlucky marble drawers) would have to run again for their respective offices.

We’ll start with Gallo, who managed to turn a second place general finish into a runoff election victory. To do it, she picked up nearly 32 percent between the general and the runoff. Though she landed all four precincts that her former opponent Robert Thomas won in November, Gallo also managed to pick up 10 precincts won by Dealey in the general. In the end, the runoff was not all that close: Gallo beat Dealey by a count of 54.7 percent to 45.2 in a district that saw the highest turnout.

Still, a look back at the 2012 presidential results suggests that this may not hold the next time Gallo has to run. Again, we will note that City of Austin elections are supposed to be nonpartisan. And we will add to it that the past, especially in an area that grows and changes with some level of rapidity, may not here be prologue. All that said, we would remind you that Democratic presidential candidates tend to do pretty well in the Austin region. Indeed, of the 10 precincts flipped by Gallo in the runoff, just two voted for Republican 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

We will also note that turnout is, of course, an issue. By the time we got to the 2014 runoff, just over 78,000 voters in Travis County decided to take part in the election. That’s 15 percent of the electorate — an impressive turnout by typical runoff standards in an area where, over the past decade, as little as 5 percent of the population has come out to vote. By comparison, just over 391,000 voters took part in the 2012 presidential election. That is over 70 percent.

Now, Gallo has attempted to cast herself as a social moderate. That could play well, should 2016 voters deign to make it all the way down the ballot.

Zimmerman may be in better shape in District 6. To be sure, his victory was a much more narrow affair. He and Flannigan came out of the general election with a hair over one-quarter of the vote. And they were separated by fewer than 200 votes when the full runoff results were posted. Zimmerman picked up five of Jay Wiley’s (a clear R) general election precincts. But Flannigan also took three of those precincts, in addition to two of Zimmerman’s general election precinct wins.

So what happened? Zimmerman, for the most part, held the line and picked up a few extra votes here and there. The bad news for any Democrat thinking about taking on Zimmerman in 2016 is that, no matter the 2014 result, the District still looks like a Republican stronghold. In 2014, 22 of the precincts went to Romney, compared to 11 for Barack Obama.

Of course, all of the caveats we laid out for District 10 apply here as well. Along with another: The fact that Flannigan managed to swing a couple of Zimmerman precincts his way suggests that, perhaps, Zimmerman’s fiery brand does not necessarily appeal across more traditional Republican lines.

District 8’s Ellen Troxclair is also a conservative Council member from West Austin. We elected not to cover her here, given that she drew a four-year term, and will thus avoid the next presidential election.

Still, we can offer this: What’s the future for the current (nonpartisan) GOP-colored Austin City Council Districts 6 and 10? For District 10, it will depend on turnout. For District 6, things may not be so in flux.

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